EnviroNews Editor’s Note: The following news piece represents the fourth in a 15-part mini-series titled, Nuclear Power in Our World Today, featuring nuclear authority, engineer and whistleblower Arnie Gundersen. The EnviroNews USA special encompasses a wide span of topics, ranging from Manhattan-era madness to the continuously-unfolding crisis on the ground at Fukushima Daiichi in eastern Japan.
Susannah Frame To WRPS President: We’re here to talk about tank AY-102. Can you tell us why the public was mislead for several months last year?
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Arnie Gundersen: All of these bomb legacy sites — Hanford in Washington State…
Emerson Urry: That has the plutonium leak in AY-102 correct? Which, has that been ratcheted down? Have they been able to ratchet down AY-102?
Gundersen: No. Hanford is going to take 70 years and cost 110 billion dollars to clean up. So, here we are, paying for over a half-a-century, for the legacy of building bombs for five years in 1940.
Josh Cunnings (Narrator): Good evening, and thank you for tuning in to the EnviroNews USA news desk where we continue our tour of Manhattan-Project-era madness with esteemed nuclear expert and whistleblower Arnie Gundersen. Last time, the conversational topic brought us to St. Louis Missouri and the lurking, looming disaster that’s currently facing the radioactive West Lake Landfill — which also just happens to be operated by a company called Republic Services — a massive waste management company, of which a certain Bill Gates is a top tier shareholder. Make sure to catch this episode on EnviroNews.com if you’ve not seen it yet. Tonight, in episode four, our journey takes us on another nuclear sojourn to the American West Coast, not far outside Seattle, Washington, to an infamous nuclear waste dump-site know as Hanford.
Excerpt #1 From Department of Energy (DOE) Documentary, The Hanford Story:
Narrators: Our nation possessed the ingredients for the most powerful weapons ever conceived — and the secret was out. After the World War II our nation’s policy was peace through strength, and Hanford’s work to bolster our nation’s defenses was booming. Hanford’s plutonium finishing plant complex was a key component of that mission, because for more than 40 years it created plutonium, sent to other government sites, to manufacture nuclear weapons.
Excerpt #2 From DOE Documentary, The Hanford Story:
Narrator: During these critical wartime and national security missions, the thought of what to do with the resulting waste, and what its impact on the environment might be, was secondary to the need for immediate production and use of the vital plutonium. Nearly 200 million gallons of this waste was held in underground storage tanks, or worse, returned directly to the ground.
Herschel Crose — Retired Hanford Worker: There were two big headers on each side of the reactor, and the affluent was then distributed out to a cooling basin for a period of time, and then the water was taken in an underground pipe, and it went out to the middle of the river, underneath the river, where then it was distributed and discharged there.
Narrator: The sheer magnitude of the impact on the environment is staggering, resulting in nearly incomprehensible numbers — numbers like: 270,000,000,000 gallons of contaminated groundwater, 25,000,000 cubic feet of buried or stored solid waste, 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel, 20 tons of plutonium-bearing materials, and 53,000,000 gallons of waste in 177 underground storage tanks. This waste is the legacy of more than five decades of plutonium production, making it easy to see how Hanford became the largest, most complex environmental cleanup effort in the world.
Crose: The materials [that] were developed were highly radioactive, and so they were taken outside the fence, and a trench was dug, and they were buried. And that was how it was disposed of in those days.
Excerpt From the Columbia Riverkeeper Documentary, Hanford — A Race Against Time:
Dan Serres — Columbia Riverkeeper, Conservation Director: Today we’ll be floating down an area of the Columbia River that’s an incredibly important habitat for Chinook salmon, but it’s also North America’s most contaminated site. This is an area that was used to make weapons-grade plutonium for decades — ever since the middle of World War II. This is the place where they made the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb. Now, if we don’t hold the federal government accountable for nuclear waste cleanup at Hanford, the results could be catastrophic. To understand why, you’re going to need a bit of history. In 1943, the federal government selected a huge area along the Columbia River as a top-secret site for the Manhattan Project to create plutonium for nuclear weapons. The government removed Native Americans who had lived along the Columbia River for centuries and evacuated the small communities of Hanford in nearby White Bluffs. Within a year the US built the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactor and eventually built nine nuclear reactors on the banks of the river to create the most destructive bombs in human history. During the rush to build bombs, the US also created dangerous nuclear waste — radioactive pollution associated with cancer, genetic mutation and other grave health effects. At the time, storing that waste in underground steel tanks might have seemed good enough. Now, as the waste eats through steel and concrete we’re left with a massive ticking time bomb, staved off only by the ongoing cleanup efforts that began in 1989.
Dennis Faulk — EPA, Hanford Project Office, Unit Manager: We really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into back in 1989. The other thing that we’ve discovered is there was a lot more waste out there than we ever anticipated.
Serres: This is the place where the Department of Energy actually stored spend nuclear fuel for years and years, and to the point where it began to degrade and break down and turn into this toxic radioactive sludge — it’s very close to the river. And it doesn’t just stop here. What’s beyond, far out of sight, miles into the Hanford area, are these huge tanks full of very highly radioactive sludge and liquid waste. And these tanks are leaking.
Dieter Bohrmann — Washington Department of Ecology, Communications Manager: Time is not on our side when we’re talking about these tanks aging and continuing to possibly leak into the soil.
Serres: On this pollution mapping tour released by federal scientists, you can see real-time nuclear and chemical waste data. While contaminants from the nine reactors along the river pose the most immediate threat, the real sleeping giant rests at the center of Hanford. Here, 177 buried tanks, many as large as an Olympic swimming pool, hold some of the most dangerous pollution on earth. Dozens of tanks already leaked nuclear waste, and pollution is creeping towards the Columbia River and groundwater. We’re simply running out of time. If the federal government doesn’t clean up the waste, more radioactive pollution will reach the river.
Cunnings: Now, before we get into Arnie Gundersen’s takeaway on that site, known simply as “Hanford,” we need to present you with a couple of outtakes from some bombshell investigative reporting on the matter, conducted by Susannah Frame of NBC’s local affiliate King 5. Frame’s excellent series titled, Hanford’s Dirty Secrets, represents a rare instance of high-end investigative reporting, by a mainstream media that frequently fails to adequately report on nuclear issues. Hanford has been plagued by a plutonium leak for a good while now — a situation that they have yet to get a handle on. Disturbingly, executives of that company tried their best to cover it all up — but incase you didn’t already know, it’s pretty hard to click your fingers and make evidence of a plutonium leak simply disappear. Frankly though, if it wasn’t for a courageous plant whistleblower and the valiant reporting of Ms. Frame, that incredibly dangerous plutonium leak may have gone unchecked and unaddressed for who knows how long. Take a look at how the cover-up and scandal were exposed by Frame and her source:
Segments From the NBC King 5 Series, Hanford’s Dirty Secrets:
Dennis Bounds — Anchor, King 5 (NBC Affiliate): Tonight the King 5 Investigators expose a government contractor at Hanford that disregarded evidence that nuclear waste was leaking from an underground tank for nearly a year before investigating it.
Jean Enersen — Anchor, King 5 News: And it’s not just any tank. This is the one that holds the most deadly waste at the entire Hanford site near the Tri-Cities in eastern Washington. King 5 investigator Susannah Frame joins us now with the first report in her series, Hanford’s Dirty Secrets.
Susannah Frame — Lead Investigative Reporter, King 5 News: Jean and Dennis, the contractor is based in Richland; it’s called Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS). The federal governments pays that company a lot of money to keep the public safe from millions of gallons of radioactive waste at Hanford. But we found WRPS looked the other way when faced with scientific evidence that they had a major problem on their hands.
Frame: Last year the US Department of Energy (DOE) told us something big: for the first time one of their double-shell tanks was leaking, found during a routine, regularly scheduled inspection of the tank know as AY-102. And they released these photos: radioactive and chemically lethal sludge oozing out of the main tank.
Tom Carpenter — Member, Hanford Advisory Board: The fact that a double-shell tank is leaking at the Hanford site is a game changer.
Frame: A major blow for sure. The double-shells were supposed to be the toughest tanks around — the best shot at making sure the most deadly gunk wasn’t going anywhere for decades.
Carpenter: It contains literally trillions and trillions of lethal does of radiation in that waste.
Frame: Remember how the government told us they discovered this major problem during a routine inspection [and] that everyone was caught by surprise last year? We found that’s not true. The evidence shows the contractor in charge of the tanks, WRPS, headquartered here in Richland, ignored strong evidence the tank was leaking for nearly a year before doing anything about it.
Mike Geffre — WRPS, Hanford Instrument Technician: We knew that we had a severe problem.
Frame: Mike Geffre has worked at Hanford for 26 years. In 2011 he responded to an alarm on AY-102. Leak detection equipment sent up signals that waste was escaping from the tank, leaking into what’s called the “annulus” — the space between the main tank and the outer shell.
Geffre: We never guessed in a million years that we were going to have a double-shell tank leak.
Frame: Geffre and a co-worker checked the equipment and saw this: those white flakes in the middle of your screen — tiny signs of big trouble, [and] what looked like nuclear waste had dried up on the gear. Then, something from that part of the tank they’d never seen before: a reading of radioactive contamination.
Geffre: It was very shocking for us — for both of us. We just kept looking at each other. Like wow! That’s really hot!
Frame: At that moment, was there really any doubt in your mind that you had a leak?
Geffre: Oh no. I knew right then that we had a leak — that something was wrong down there.
Frame: Geffre reported the findings right away to his bosses who had a different opinion: the detection equipment, not the tank must be broken.
Geffre: They just kind of sat there, and they just kind of went, “Well, are you sure that thing is calibrated?” I said, “Yeah I’m sure. I’m the one that does the calibrations on it. I’m the one that takes care of it. Of course I’m sure.”
Frame: WRPS downplayed that first alarm. They reported to government officials that rainwater, not nuclear waste, most likely creeped onto that gear in the annulus. And the radioactive readings? They concluded it was simply leftover, or legacy contamination, from years ago. But King 5 found the company’s own experts later discounted those explanations in a 400-page report. WRPS wrote the “rainwater explanation seems problematic” because of the radiation reading. And the legacy contamination theory? They wrote, that area’s been “contamination-free” since 1999.
Geffre: Nothing added up that said this wasn’t a problem. They just chose not to do anything.
Frame: WRPS wouldn’t go on camera, but issued a statement to [King 5] saying, they didn’t ignore anything — that they “thoroughly evaluated” events in 2011, and that “experience gained over decades” of tank-farm operations lead them to believe “rainwater,” not nuclear waste, was collecting in the annulus of AY-102.
Marco Kaltofen — Environmental Radiation Expert: If your alarm clock goes off, hey, it’s time to go to work. If your alarm goes off in the tank, it’s time to, apparently, wait another year.
Frame: Marco Kaltofen is a researcher near Boston. He’s one of the top environmental radiation experts in the country. He says waiting to investigate signs of a leak is a serious mistake. The worst case: the most dangerous material on the planet makes its way all the way out of that tank.
Kaltofen: Time is not our friend. This waste actually gets worse as time goes on. It’s hot. It’s corrosive. It eats through its container. It can’t sit there, or it’s going to be in the Columbia River, and there’s no other choice.
Frame: The contractor says they assumed it was rainwater because it had been raining really hard in the Tri-Cities for several days before the alarm sounded. So, how much has leaked so far? WRPS tells us up to 520 gallons had escaped last year, and that there hasn’t been any real or measurable change since then. But we’ve obtained records written by the Department of Ecology showing that’s not true. They report the waste is measureable, [and] that’s it’s grown by 25 percent from what they recorded in December, and they continue to watch that leak because at this point there’s no plan in what to do about it.
Enersen: And you will continue?
Frame: Yes. On Thursday we’re going to have another story. That will focus on: it wasn’t just this one red flag — this alarm that was kind of downplayed. We’re going to show you it was a series of events, over about a 10-month period, that for some reason, managers just kind of looked the other way.
Enersen: Ok, look forward to it Susannah.
Enersen: Good evening. Governor Jay Inslee and the federal government are both taking action now, after a King 5 investigation into a Hanford contractor.
Bounds: The investigators exposed the contractor looked the other way for nearly a year, as evidence rolled in that for the first time ever, a double-shell tank was leaking nuclear waste. Susannah Frame is here with the latest in her series, Hanford’s Dirty Secrets.
Frame: Well, Dennis and [Jean], we’ve heard about other leaking tanks, so why is this one so important? This tank is holding waste that is so toxic that if it were to eat through its outer shell and reach the nearby Columbia River, it would contaminate irrigation water, crops, salmon, our food chain — not for months, but for hundreds of years to come. This is one spot at Hanford the public is never allowed to go. Underfoot, the most hazardous material on earth is brewing inside a million-gallon double-shell tank.
Geffre: This tank is holding the nastiest of nasty stuff at Hanford.
Frame: A year-and-a-half ago, Mike Geffre, who works for a Hanford contractor, saw what no one expected: evidence that tank was leaking. If so, it would be the first double-shell tank to ever leak at the site.
Geffre: I knew it was serious because that’s what my career has been for the last 25 years is to monitor these tanks, to check for leaks, and that’s what I’ve done.
Frame: Geffre reported his findings to the top company guy in the field right away — WRPS [Tank Farm] Manager Dave Strasser, who argued this wasn’t serious — that rainwater, not nuclear waste, must have creeped into the space between the tank’s inner and outer shells.
Geffre: It was kind of just, we don’t want to deal with it Mike. Just let it go.
Frame: Shut up?
Geffre: Just shut up. Just let it go. Don’t worry about it.
Frame: But Geffre did worry about it, as warning after warning rolled in. A leak detection alarm went off. A few weeks later, an air monitor spiked to the highest reading of radioactivity ever seen by current employees. Five months after that, equipment got stuck to the tank floor — an indicator it was glued to sticky waste.
Geffre: I complained a lot about it. I made a lot of statements of, “what are we going to do?”
Frame: After all that, the employees here at Hanford came across the biggest red flag of all — something the experts say should have sent their managers scrambling to find answers. A broken wire, similar to this one behind the glass, was pulled out of the space between the shells. It gave off an extremely hot radiation reading — one that shocked the workers, but not the managers. They didn’t call for more investigation. Instead, they kept to their rainwater theory. WRPS, the contractor hired by the feds to take care of all the tanks at Hanford, denied repeated requests for an on-camera interview. But they told us their experts disagree. They said contamination readings were well below what would have been expected from tank-waste, and that the alleged red flags were investigated and determined unlikely to be caused by a leak.
Cunnings: Frame didn’t stop her reporting there. She stayed on the story relentlessly, and she even ambushed the CEO in the parking lot after he repeatedly ignored her requests for an interview, on what was rapidly forming a full-blown scandal.
Bounds: In her continuing investigation, Hanford’s Dirty Secrets, Susannah Frame asks if bonus money trumped safety at the former plutonium production facility.
Washington State Representative Gerry Pollet (D): If those people even thought that there was a possibility that this was a leak they should not be in their jobs anymore.
Frame: King 5 has uncovered another troubling event on the jobsite. It happened a few weeks after the first leak alarm went off. The contractor in charge of the tanks, WRPS, directed an employee to zero-reset, or reprogram the leak detection system. The change meant the equipment stopped sensing the gunk already piled up at the bottom of the tank, in essence, making the problem appear to go away.
Pollet: It smells like a cover-up to me.
Frame: State Representative Gerry Pollet is the legislature’s leading expert on Hanford.
Pollet: That’s where it begins to look and smell like a very deliberate cover-up rather than ignorance.
Bob Alvarez — Former Presidential Nuclear Policy Advisor: Reporting leaks in high-level waste tanks has been frowned upon at this site for decades. Yeah.
Frame: Bob Alvarez is a former Senior Nuclear Policy Advisor under President Clinton. At Hanford he says, there’s an incentive to ignore or cover up problems: it’s that bonus money is on the line.
Alvarez: Why are these contractors doing what they are doing? It’s all purely economically motivated of course.
Frame: Alvarez travelled the world, including North Korea and Hanford, working on nuclear safety issues for the US Department of Energy, headquartered here in Washington DC. He’s seen first hand the government’s payment system he believes is at the root of the problem.
Alvarez: Where rewards are given for only presenting good news and not bad news — then you have these problems. It’s just that simple.
Frame: Here’s how it works: The government doles out rewards, bonus money, when contractors complete specific jobs, like moving waste out of certain tanks. Experts say looking for, and reporting something devastating, like a leaking tank, could be a showstopper, bringing extra work and questions that might get in the way of collecting the cash. During the year WRPS disregarded signs of trouble, the company celebrated a banner one in the bonus department. Mike Johnson wrote to employees there, “[the] outstanding effort” led to the feds awawrding them more than $23m that year — one of their biggest bonuses ever.
Pollet: If we had a coffee cup of waste from that tank sitting here between us since we started this interview, we’d both be dead now.
Frame: Experts say the waste at Hanford, especially what’s inside the leaking double-shell tank, is so harmful the government needs to change its strategy. It should encourage, not discourage, facing challenges head-on. We asked the company, WRPS, if the pressure to make their bonus money had any bearing at all on their decision with that tank. Today they sent us a response that says; after they found evidence of the leak they had all the resources they needed to attend to that, and to finish their bonus making projects. Of course, we also wanted to hear from their bosses, the US Department of Energy, on this topic — we wanted to ask them: Do you have any incentives for your contractors to report problems? But so far, they haven’t answered any of those questions.
Bounds: In her continuing investigation, Hanford’s Dirty Secrets, Susannah Frame reveals the danger of an important tank at the site was concealed during meetings for the public and policymakers.
Frame: With all the uncertainties at Hanford, what’s buried below this dirt was supposed to be the one slam-dunk: 28 sturdy double-shell tanks. If all else failed, at least these would protect the Columbia River, the food-chain, and people from the worst of the worst on the planet. With two steel walls, not one like the older tanks, the added safety barrier would contain that nuclear waste until scientist figured a way to get rid of it for good. But that plan fell apart.
Carpenter: The failure of a double-shell tank is big, big news.
Frame: The citizen watchdog group Hanford Challenge shocked the public last summer with information from a Hanford insider. The press release read, “First Double-Shell Tank Leaks at Hanford [Nuclear Site]” — a massive blow to the entire cleanup operation.
Carpenter: And the reason is, that we are relying on these tanks to operate safely for 40, 50 years, through the rest of the cleanup.
Frame: Now the public wanted to know: What’s going on? — Especially the 32 members of the Hanford Advisory Board — citizens, government officials and scientists. It’s there job to give sound advice to the feds and the state of Washington on how to solve problems at the site. The Board had questions, and Tom Fletcher, a US Department of Energy Hanford manager, was supposed to be the man with the answers. At a Board meeting last September, Fletcher brought photos of mysterious material that had made its way into that safety space between the two walls of the tank known as AY-102. But Fletcher told the policy advisors he didn’t know what it was yet.
Meredith Crafton: They were saying, “Well, don’t jump to conclusions. It’s just a possible leak.”
Frame: Meredith Crafton and Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge both attended the September meeting.
Carpenter: The overall presentation was: We’re looking, but we don’t see any evidence yet.
Frame: Don’t worry?
Carpenter: Don’t worry.
Frame: Representative Gerry Pollet was there as well.
Pollet: And their answer was: We’re investigating it, but we think that it’s likely that it’s rainwater.
Frame: Here’s an audio recording of a potion of Fletcher’s presentation:
Fletcher: It could be a carbonate buildup — and that’s a possibility. Like I said, we’ve seen a lot of different things, and they just don’t point to any one thing, and that’s why [it’s] really hard to speculate what it is. We haven’t gotten to the point that says, hey, we know what it is. We know there is a history of rainwater leakage in this tank annulus.
Frame: We found those explanations don’t add up. A month before that meeting, with all the speculation of rainwater, a tiny piece of duct tape, something similar to this, told a different story. This is duct tape employees from the government contractor in charge of the tanks, WRPS, lowered into the safety space of AY-102, to grab a sample of whatever was down there. And boy, did that tape deliver! Internal emails obtained by King 5 show that on August 13, weeks before the Board briefing, a lab reported to company executives what they’d found: flakes of rust, old paint, and something else: some of the most dangerous nuclear byproducts known to man — strontium 90, plutonium, cesium 137 and more — the exact components of AY-102’s primary tank.
Frame to Kaltofen: After they analyzed the duct tape, should there have been a lingering question: Is the tank leaking, or not?
Frame: Via Skype, we shared the findings with our radiation expert Marco Kaltofen of Boston.
Kaltofen: I don’t know what they [were] waiting for. Did they need a fax from the President saying: “Ok, this is a leak.” It was time. All the information was there to make the right decision.
Frame: Enough was on that tape?
Frame: The tape held one more important clue: it was screaming hot with radioactivity. And remember, the sample came from the safety space that shouldn’t record any contamination at all.
Kaltofen: That’s a huge number. You actually have to go out and look hard for equipment that can measure radiation that’s that high. You had all the information you needed. You knew you had a leak. And now, it’s just time to fess up and face the music.
Frame: We wanted to ask WRPS President Mike Johnson about that and more. He repeatedly denied our request for an on-camera interview.
Frame to Johnson: Hi Mr. Johnson. I’m Susannah Frame from King TV. We’ve talked on the phone before. We’re here to talk about tank AY-102.
Frame to Johnson: Can you tell us why the public was mislead for several months last year?
Frame: We caught up with Johnson outside the WRPS offices in Richland.
Frame to Johnson: I think we have some important questions that our viewers deserve to have answered.
Frame: Johnson didn’t answer our questions, but members of the Hanford Advisory Board did, when we told them about the tape and lab results dated in August — a month before their briefing.
Carpenter: If they are going to just dismiss the evidence — the obvious evidence in front of them, and not even tell us about that evidence, then how can we rely on them for anything?
Crafton: And I think it can put the public at risk and workers at risk when they’re not forthcoming with information. Also meaning, they’re not forthcoming with responding to issues, and creating solutions.
Pollet: This was a very deliberate cover-up, and I will use the word that we were “lied” to. There is no two ways about it. We were lied to.
Frame: Now, it wasn’t just WRPS President Mike Johnson who wouldn’t answer our questions about this issue. The Department of Energy, which put on the presentation for that Advisory Board, wouldn’t answer any questions about the [duct] tape, the lab results, and the delay in telling the public what was really going on.
Allen Schauffler — Anchor, King 5: A big shakeup at the Hanford nuclear facility in eastern Washington.
Enersen: The president of one of the federal government’s main contractors there has abruptly announced he’s retiring. The change comes after a series of reports by King 5 investigator Susannah Frame called, Hanford’s Dirty Secrets.
Cunnings: So, without further ado, let’s hear what Arnie Gundersen, a man who knows all too well about nuclear cover-ups, had to say about Washington State’s festering radioactive stew.
Urry: We’ve mentioned Hanford a couple times. I want to just ask a couple questions on that. They’ve got a plutonium leak going on up there, and a journalist essentially discovered that the executives of that company — the way that it was set up, they were essentially incentivized, that they would receive bonuses if they reported that everything was fine and well. So, although there was a plant worker that was saying, “there’s a leak, there’s a leak, there’s a leak” — I think there was maybe a 10 or 11-month period where the executives were just like, “nope, it’s just rainwater.” Is that across the board that we see that? The way that it’s structured is that… I mean, essentially in this case, they were incentivized for bad behavior — to sweep it under the rug and just say, “everything is fine.”
Gundersen: It’s not just Hanford. It’s all of the Department of Energy contracts [that] have that same incentive in them. WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant), the waste isolation project…
Urry: Which has a plutonium leak also right?
Gundersen: Which had a plutonium explosion also. In the months before that, all the executives walked away with bonuses despite the fact that there were numerous safety problems. Part of the problem there is that it’s a revolving door. The Department of Energy inspector today becomes the executive after he retires. So, there is no incentive by the Department of Energy to put the brakes on and take away the incentive from those executives. The contracts that DOE has written are very liberal and very hard to enforce. It’s basically a gravy train for the companies that are doing it. Hanford’s a mess and will be for another 50 years. The commitment of the United States to Hanford, because we made bombs there, is that we’ll have to spend another 100 billion dollars to clean it up.
Cunnings: And there you have it folks. Only 100 billion of your hard-earned tax dollars will be required to clean up this disastrous place. No big deal right? Well, maybe it wouldn’t be if it weren’t barely one amongst thousands of Manhattan Project-era situations that are also in desperate need of being cleaned up. Tune in tomorrow for episode five in our 15-part mini-series, Nuclear Power in Our World Today, with Arnie Gundersen. In the next episode we’ll discuss the potential threat that is posed to humanity by General Electric’s Mark I reactor — of which there are still dozens in operation today. For EnviroNews USA, this is Josh Cunnings.